Mary Mac’s Tea Room, Atlanta GA

I had been wanting to go to Mary Mac’s for a really long time. It’s the last surviving example of a brief late ’40s trend of restaurants opened by war widows looking to both stay afloat and remain a little classy, so they called their establishments “tea rooms” in the hopes of attracting a better sort of clientele than the lowlifes who went to juke joints and meat-and-threes. This fad did not last, but this one place on Ponce, started by Mary MacKenzie, survived. It is no longer in family hands – MacKenzie sold it to Margaret Lupo in 1962, who in turn sold the business to John Ferrell in the mid-nineties – but it certainly thrives. It’s one of Atlanta’s best-known destination restaurants, a place that turns a traditional meat and three into a very classy experience, and one of the very best examples of southern cooking in north Georgia, with some really amazing food.

The Saturday after my dad passed, I took Neal up on his offer to get out and relax a little. He had the goal of trying to track down a bizarre little promotional tie-in to the TV series Fringe, a short-pressed LP hiding out in various record stores, so we went by a couple of the few places in Atlanta left that still sell the darn things with no luck, and stopped at Mary Mac’s for lunch. There is a small parking lot behind the restaurant, but it fills up almost instantly. Diners will have better luck parking along Myrtle Street and enjoying a short walk.

The staff at Mary Mac’s enjoys welcoming new guests with a small, complementary bowl of pot likker. This is the slightly salty liquid left behind after boiling greens, and it starts meals here off just right. Everything here is incredibly tasty and fresh. I had a small house salad with thousand island dressing, and it looked and tasted like those vegetables were still in the ground the night before, and Neal and I shared an appetizer of fried green tomatoes. These were truly wonderful, easily the equal of the fabulous ones prepared at Blue Willow Inn and The Fickle Pickle, and served with a very light and tasty remoulade.

My meal was very good, or, at least, the sides were. I was indecisive about what to get, briefly considered the meat loaf, and finally settled on some chicken tenders. These were perfectly decent, but honestly, I should have just ordered a veggie plate. I keep telling myself that and never listen. I had pickled beets and the mac and cheese, both of which were just amazing, and Brunswick stew, which was also very good. Neal, on the other hand, really scored with his chicken livers, which he says were every bit as good as the exceptional ones at Doug’s Place in Emerson. Like me, he ordered one side too many, but enjoyed what he could finish.

We were finishing off our meal and basking in satisfaction when a woman who looked to be a little ways older than us but still bouncing with a spring in her step came up behind Neal and put her hand on his shoulder before asking how we were doing and how our food was. This unexpected burst of familiarity probably wouldn’t pass muster up north. Neal said later that he thought it was some relation of his coming to say hey.

She explained that she liked to come around and make sure everything was okay, and that while she wasn’t the one who cooked our food – I had asked whether we had her to thank – she did sample everything in the kitchen. While I joked around about how that explained why each of my beets had a bite taken already – a joke from a color Popeye cartoon that I doubt anybody else remembers – she went right to work rubbing Neal’s shoulders with such vigor that his eyes about popped out of his head.

She left her card and went onto another table. The back of her T-shirt read “I got my belly filled and my back rubbed at Mary Mac’s.” Free pot likker and shoulder rubs. They must want repeat business or something.

Other blog posts about Mary Mac’s:

The Blissful Glutton (July 3 2007)
Atlanta Restaurant Blog (Aug. 6 2010)
Retro Roadmap (May 1 2011)